I’ve long subscribed to the wisdom of aging gracefully and with dignity. Wish I could say the same about my beleaguered body.
Take my left knee, for example. It started with acute pain that occasionally interrupted my sleep. The ailment was diagnosed as osteoarthritis. A round of physiotherapy gave me five or six years of intermittent discomfort. I was fitted for a brace which I continue to wear on long walks or hikes and on fishing outings.
Then, one late autumn day I was carrying groceries in a parking lot when my knee gave out—collapsed is the most accurate word—and I fell, scattering bags, packages and cans in every direction. I was fortunate not to fracture a wrist or an elbow. This unexpected occurrence began happening with uninvited regularity. Another round of physio didn’t help much so, after consultation, my doctor agreed to refer me to an orthopaedic clinic for knee replacement surgery. I was put on a list, as they say.
A few months later, at the height of spring in the heart of Canada’s lone Carolinian forest, I was making my way towards a Southwestern Ontario river–small enough to be called a creek—in pursuit of wily trout. After negotiating a modest slope down to the water, I decided not to open my wading staff, thinking I would do it when I had entered the river.
Bad mistake. As soon as both feet hit the riverbed my left knee collapsed and down I went, not deep but enough to soak me from shoulders to soles. Of course, my waders filled, ensuring that I was drenched inside and out.
While unintended, it was baptism in the season of renewal and rebirth, when hope replaces the long dark winter of melancholy and uncertainty.
My angling companion, Doug Wilson—co-founder and president of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory who I first met at KW Flyfishers–asked if I was OK while offering an extended hand.
‘I’m embarrassed but, otherwise fine,’ I replied.
‘Do you still want to fish?’ he asked.
‘Yup,’ I confirmed. ‘I’m choosing to interpret this mishap as a lucky omen. The trout will see me as a fellow aquatic denizen and will look kindly upon my humble offering of Mr. Adams.’
Doug asked where I intended to fish and I told him I would start a few yards downriver, which had been altered over the previous winter after a small dam or weir had been removed. The new riffles looked like a trout factory to me—but, of course, I didn’t reveal my hand to Doug as he sauntered farther downriver.
Most shrewd anglers agree you must venture beyond the heavy angling traffic of easy access points to get to good fishing. This is generally sound piscatorial advice. But the opposite can be equally true.
I have found that anglers who are too obsessively focused on catching fish to the exclusion of everything else often race pass promising water on the hunt for what they expect is more productive aquatic pastures by virtue of being farthest away. This, of course, is a riff on the old chord about the water being bluer on the other side.
But I digress.
I made my first cast. My beloved seven-and-a-half-foot Sweetgrass bamboo rod shivered, eliciting a smile on my face as I landed my first small rainbow. On subsequent casts a pair of ’bows charged my perky Adams simultaneously. Shortly afterwards another couple hit my fly in quick succession as it floated diagonally across the river.
Within half an hour I had landed seven ’bows before moving off the riffle. The more trout I caught, the drier I seemed to get.
After a couple of hours, I had caught eighteen spunky rainbows between four and eight inches in length, which I considered a better than average day on a river I had been fishing for close to twenty years. A week previously, for instance, I caught nine ’bows, the largest of which was a pleasing ten inches.
This adventure, however, had a special surprise for me.
Much of the river ranges between knee deep and waist deep. However, there are a few deeper pools that top the height of my chest waders. I know this from personal experience. During my fly-fishing apprenticeship on a distant opening day (last weekend in April) I tried to rescue an errant fly grabbed by the clutching branches of a fallen tree extending from the opposite bank. I not only failed to recover my fly, but discovered how difficult it is to navigate a riverbed after your waders fill with ‘cool, clear water’ (to quote the timeless Sons of the Pioneer song).
On this warm, sunny day I approached one such pool and cast into a column of roiling water, nudging my fly to float along the current and veer seductively toward the seam between faster and slower water.
Suddenly my Sweetgrass yawned and dipped toward the river’s embrace. My copper-coloured English-made Orvis CFO reel released five-weight double-taper line with a gleeful clickety-clack as the fish plunged deeper into the dark depths.
I knew I was into a bigger fish. Barely could I contain my joy. I had been waiting many seasons for this moment of bliss to carry me away.
It had to be a brownie—just had to be. I knew the river was home to a small, robust population of large brown trout in addition to abundant rainbows and a few precious brookies. I had witnessed angling companion, Chris Pibus, land a big brown a couple of seasons previously. And a week after this outing my longtime angling partner Dan Kennaley caught of trio of browns all exceeding twelve-inches.
Finally I saw a video of Doug’s son, Adam, landing a pair of browns while his young son, Parker, shadowed his father and watched spellbound. ‘Is this a delicate one, Daddy?’ Parker whispered. (He had been instructed not to touch fish his dad caught because they are ‘delicate.’)
A couple of times over the years I had what I suspected were large browns strike my fly. But, sadly, had failed to set the hook, causing a moment of exhilaration to evaporate like raindrops on a hot campfire grill.
Not this time. This was different, my hook set wasn’t about to betray me or forsake me.
I played the fish—which turned out to be a thirteen-inch Brown Beauty. Its creamy yellow belly reminded me of freshly churned butter. It’s blue, black, vermilion and burnt orange spots on a Stirling silver background resembled gemstones dancing in sunlight as I cradled the creature in the wet palms of my hands.
Doug arrived in the nick of time. A former National Magazine Award winner who taught photography and photojournalism at Conestoga and Mohawk colleges, in addition to publishing in Harrowsmith, Equinox and Canadian Heritage magazines and illustrating To Market, To Market, the Public Market Tradition in Canada, he snapped a couple of photos on his cell phone before I gently coaxed the brown back from whence it came.
My confidence in good luck blossoming from the riverbed of misfortune restored, we decided to call it a day. As Doug and I retraced our steps along the riverbank towards our parked vehicles, my eye glimpsed a lone kingfisher in hurried flight low over the water, its stubby, rounded wings whirring rapidly, no doubt intent on a late supper.
We decided to retire to a nearby village pub to enjoy plates of Lake Erie perch and chilled pints of craft organic beer. I wanted to express my gratitude for a memorable day on the water by treating my friend to a celebratory meal.
‘If I smell like a river,’ I confided to the waitress after entering the pub, ‘it’s because I got a soaker while fishing.’
She laughed heartily as she escorted us to a booth before asking, ‘How was it, the fishing?’
‘Wonderful,’ I replied. ‘Simply wonderful.’